Owen Fiss argues that the ghettos and barrios of our metropolitan areas are profoundly harmful to their residents and to the larger community, and that there are radical policy alternatives that would produce much better results. I agree on both points. Genuine and supported choices to move out of inner cities in a way that avoided merely extending the ghetto could produce important gains in schooling, in community opportunities, and in bringing down barriers of prejudice and opportunity. The money we are already spending on often-counterproductive initiatives could be invested much more effectively, and we could be connecting many excluded families to opportunities that are critical to upward mobility in contemporary American society–better schools with better teachers, middle-class peer groups, better networks for moving into jobs and higher education, and proximity to much stronger job markets.
In fact, we are already in the midst of a gigantic relocation program of poor families from the large housing projects that are being leveled in various cities. Very strong conditions and services of the kind developed for Chicago’s famous Gautreaux program–providing counseling, support services, and housing-search help in outlying suburban communities for residents of Chicago Housing Authority project–should be attached to all of these moves. The alternative is to create new ghettos and to overwhelm and resegregate a number of fragile integrated communities as thousands of poor minority families with housing-subsidy certificates seek housing in discriminatory markets.
A truly massive relocation program would, however, require huge investments in new affordable housing and housing-subsidy certificates, as well as massive changes in land use controls and local rights to control housing types. And it is difficult to imagine how this could be done when both political parties are responding to suburban majorities who are hostile to such policies. Probably we would need a massive social movement, major political change, and a transformed judiciary to make such changes possible.
These steep political hurdles do not, however, prevent steps in the right direction. The first such step is to recognize that not all the positive mobility moves are outward. A significant number of our cities, for example, have areas of strong gentrification, where young urban professionals are eagerly turning previously neglected low-income areas and into ultra-fashionable and expensive neighborhoods. With flexible tools and careful monitoring of housing conditions, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and state and local housing and development agencies, community groups, churches, and nonprofits could try to identify such areas early and obtain buildings and land for affordable and subsidized housing. With the right interventions, minority tenants could ride up with the boom. Funding for magnet and charter schools and other new school offerings could be tied to such a package in order to make certain that the new middle-class residents stayed in place when their children reached school age and provided the kind of opportunities that diverse schools offer to the children in the lower-priced housing. Another less costly strategy would be to intervene strongly to preserve and defend stable, middle-class integration in neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs threatened by resegregation in their housing markets and schools. Such communities now rarely receive serious support, and there will be a vast increase in the number of such communities in the next two decades as racial change becomes overwhelmingly a suburban story. Large-scale black suburbanization began in a few metros in the 1970s, and is now occurring in many, but usually in the form of spreading segregation. The leaders of the relatively small list of successfully integrated suburbs and stable city neighborhoods that have broken the cycle of resegregation and enjoyed great economic and social success have very good ideas about what can be done at the local level and what kinds of support are needed from the schools and higher levels of government. We need a serious national debate on those issues.
Some constructive relocation initiatives are possible, then, and should be pursued. But most of us who have been engaged in the exit vs. redevelopment debates for a long time strongly believe that it is a mistake to pose these strategies as stark alternatives. The fact is that integration strategies are very unlikely to be implemented broadly enough or fast enough to solve the problems that Fiss describes. While there have been many ineffective efforts to break the cycle of decline and upgrade urban neighborhoods and opportunities, there have also been genuine successes and important possibilities remain open. The basic foci should be on targeting communities with substantial possibilities for stable and economically diverse populations and making strategic investments across various functions of government and private lending to reverse moderate decline or to take advantage of neglected but real possibilities. Such an approach would, for example, give high priority to provision of key resources such as competitive magnet schools and housing investment funds, which would keep middle class families in the community and attract more of them. It would also increase private investment and build upward moving spirals while securing affordable housing early in the process. This approach would be very unlikely to work in long-impoverished and isolated core ghettos or barrios, but it could be very helpful in other settings. For example, communities experiencing substantial change in real estate markets but still largely owner-occupied and with a good, well-located housing stock primarily have to deal with the initial fear of transition and the practices of real estate steering to aggressively fight appearances of urban decay that will stimulate the fears about the future. If confidence can be restored and demand maintained in the white as well as the minority markets, the negative self-fulfilling prophecy may be replaced by beliefs that can sustain integration.
Changing kinds of possibilities also come with massive immigration and the development of multiracial communities. Much of our growth in the next half century will be non-white immigrants, mostly Latino and Asian. Depending on the patterns that develop, these groups may provide economically productive enclave economies and revitalize deteriorated communities. There should be a great deal of attention given in the next few years to figuring out how to keep these neighborhoods open to low-income black and Latino families, and how to build stable multiracial neighborhoods and schools rather than new patterns of three- and four-way segregation. We are already very well into these changes in our two largest states and the other great entry points for immigrants. So far there has been almost no discussion or policy development about these possibilities. These are not cases of classic black-white ghettoization, and there are surely new possibilities for successful diversity.
I agree that the historic policies have failed and that others are badly needed and that genuine choices of the kind provided to almost all whites and middle-class Asians must be made available on a substantial scale to African Americans and Latinos. We have to think of our cities as having not only outward momentum of sprawl and spreading suburban rings but a variety of other trends and interfaces that offer both threats of growing problems and the possibility of much better outcomes. Fiss raises one of the most fundamental questions about the future of our overwhelmingly metropolitan society. After this year’s presidential election, which is obviously being dominated by calculated appeals to white suburban voters and will carefully avoid any discussion of racial change, I hope we can begin thinking seriously about these issues.